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Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1998.

Copyright 1998 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved


Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1998.27:503-532. Downloaded from

Susan A. Reed
Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley,
California 94720-3710; e-mail:
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KEY WORDS: performance, embodiment, movement, identity, folklore

Since the mid-1980s, there has been an explosion of dance studies as scholars
from a variety of disciplines have turned their attention to dance. Anthro-
pologists have played a critical role in this new dance scholarship, contribut-
ing comparative analyses, critiquing colonial and ethnocentric categories,
and situating studies of dance and movement within broader frameworks of
embodiment and the politics of culture. This review highlights ethnographic
and historical studies that foreground dance and other structured movement
systems in the making of colonial cultures; the constitution of gender, ethnic
and national identities; the formation of discourses of exoticization; and the
production of social bodies. Several works that employ innovative ap-
proaches to the study of dance and movement are explored in detail.

It has been 20 years since Adrienne Kaeppler’s review of anthropology and
dance in this series (Kaeppler 1978). At that time, given the marginal status of
dance, Kaeppler wondered about the propriety of devoting an Annual Review
article to such an “esoteric aspect” of anthropology. But in the intervening dec-
ades, the anthropology of dance has gained greater legitimacy as a field of in-
quiry, even as it is being reconfigured within the broader framework of an an-
thropology of human movement (Farnell 1995b, Kaeppler 1985). As Lewis
(1995) has argued, this shift to “movement,” motivated by a critique of
“dance” as a universally applicable category of analysis, parallels develop-

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ments in other fields of expressive culture such as music and theatre. In ethno-
musicology, for example, Feld (1990b, 1991) has argued for a shift from the
category of “music” to sound, while the creation of “performance studies” by
Victor Turner and Richard Schechner was, in part, a reaction to the ethnocen-
trism implicit in the use of the term “theater” to refer to non-Western perform-
ance forms (Lewis 1995:223).
Concurrent with the growing interest in dance and movement within an-
thropology, “dance history” has transformed into “dance studies,” an interdis-
ciplinary field focusing on the social, cultural, political and aesthetic aspects of
dance (Daly 1991b). Three recent collections (Desmond 1997, Foster 1995a,
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Morris 1996) chart this emerging field, while the long-awaited International
Encyclopedia of Dance (Cohen 1998) includes several related entries. The ex-
panding interest in cultural studies of dance is evidenced by the fact that more
than a third of the works cited in this article were published since 1995. This
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new dance scholarship has made significant contributions to our understand-

ings of culture, movement and the body; the expression and construction of
identities; the politics of culture; reception and spectatorship; aesthetics; and
ritual practice.
Although the study of dance and other “structured movement systems”
(Kaeppler 1985) has expanded within anthropology, such work remains on the
margins of the discipline. There are at present only a few anthropologists who
specialize in dance and movement analysis, and many are located outside of
anthropology, in departments of music, dance, or performance studies. The
field of anthropology needs more specialists in movement and dance; addition-
ally, movement analysis should be included as part of the general anthropol-
ogy graduate curriculum. It is indeed ironic that, despite the considerable
growth of interest in the anthropology of the body (Lock 1993), the study of
moving bodies remains on the periphery.
Though the emergence of the anthropology of dance as a distinct subfield
can be traced to the 1960s and 1970s, dance has been the subject of anthropo-
logical study since the discipline’s inception. Early anthropologists including
Tylor, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski and Boas all addressed
aspects of dance in their writings, predictably emphasizing the social functions
of dance, with little attention to the specifics of movement. Williams (1991)
provides a comprehensive survey of these early anthropological analyses of
dance, while Spencer’s theoretical survey (1985b), Ness’s analysis of selected
anthropological works (1996), and review articles by Kaeppler (1978, 1991)
and Giurchescu & Torp (1991) outline developments in dance studies to the
late 1980s. Youngerman (1998) and Quigley (1998) provide succinct histories
of dance anthropology and ethnology, while the contributions of ethnomusi-
cologist John Blacking to the development of dance studies within the United
Kingdom are discussed by Grau (1993b).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a small group of scholars—Adrienne Kaeppler, Jo-

ann Kealiinohomoku, Anya Peterson Royce, Judith Hanna, and Drid Wil-
liams—laid the groundwork for an anthropology of dance. They examined
dance within theoretical paradigms inspired by Boas and Herskovits (Kealii-
nohomoku, Royce), Chomsky and Saussure (Kaeppler, Williams), ethnosci-
ence (Kaeppler), and communications theory (Hanna). These studies thus
stressed the form and function of dances, the deep structures of dance, and
dance as nonverbal communication. Dance anthropologists also critiqued the
ethnocentrism implicit in much standard dance scholarship. For example,
Kealiinohomoku’s article on ballet as “ethnic dance,” originally published in
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1970, took to task several classic works of dance scholarship published from
the 1920s to the 1960s. Kealiinohomoku demonstrated how dance scholars’
blanket categorization of non-Western dances as ethnic, folk, or primitive was
based on an evolutionary paradigm in which Western theatrical dance, espe-
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cially ballet, emerged as “...the one great divinely ordained apogee of the per-
forming arts” (Kealiinohomoku 1983; see also Friedland 1998).
Since the 1980s, the most significant developments in dance anthropology
have been in studies of the politics of dance, and the relations between culture,
body, and movement. Studies in these areas, which draw from semiotics, phe-
nomenology, postcolonial, poststructural, and feminist theories, reflect the
dramatic changes that occurred in anthropology in the 1980s. In this review, I
focus on studies that address these two dimensions of dance and movement,
giving particular attention to studies that exemplify original and insightful
syntheses of them. Although I focus primarily on ethnographic and historical
analyses by anthropologists, I also discuss the works of many non-anthro-
pologists whose studies speak to anthropological issues.


Dance as an expression and practice of relations of power and protest, resis-
tance and complicity, has been the subject of a number of historical and ethno-
graphic analyses in recent years. These analyses complicate issues raised in
earlier works on the politics of dance (Brandes 1979, Hanna 1979, Royce
1977), particularly in the areas of ethnicity, national identity, gender and, less
commonly, class.
Desmond’s anthropologically informed article (1993) on how social identi-
ties are “signaled, formed and negotiated” through bodily movement is par-
ticularly useful for its detailed attention to the complex ways in which dance
and movement styles are transmitted across class, ethnic, and national lines.
Desmond makes a powerful case for attending to movement as a primary so-
cial text: complex, polysemous, and constantly changing, signalling group af-
filiation and difference. Desmond shows, for example, how issues of class and
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locality can be embodied in changing lexicons of movement, resulting in a

form of “bodily bilingualism” (1993:46). While acknowledging that the con-
cepts of resistance, appropriation, and cultural imperialism are useful for un-
derstanding changes in dance across time and place, Desmond stresses that an
overemphasis on these concepts may only highlight formal properties, while
ignoring contextual meanings and processes of hybridization.

Dance studies have much to contribute to recent scholarly debates and discus-
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sions in colonialism and culture (Cooper & Stoler 1997, Dirks 1992), demon-
strating the importance of dance in the “civilizing process,” the control and
regulation of “disorderly” practices, and the profound refigurations of both lo-
cal and European culture.
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The suppression, prohibition and regulation of indigenous dances under co-

lonial rule is an index of the significance of dance as a site of considerable po-
litical and moral anxiety. Colonial administrations often perceived indigenous
dance practices as both a political and moral threat to colonial regimes. Local
dances were often viewed as excessively erotic, and colonial agents and mis-
sionaries encouraged and sometimes enforced the ban or reform of dance prac-
tices (Comaroff 1985, Kaspin 1993). However, dance was also a site of desire,
and colonial accounts record that male colonists were often captivated by “na-
tive dancers,” sometimes even joining them in dances. Thus, in many colonial
arenas, dance tended to generate multiple and contradictory policies and atti-
In some colonized areas, dance practices posed a genuine threat of political
resistance or rebellion, particularly in societies where dance was a site of male
collective performance, in which a sense of unity and power was heightened,
potentially spawning uprisings against colonial rulers or slave masters. In
Hazzard-Gordon’s analysis of dance on slave plantations in North America, it
is evident that while attitudes toward and regulation of plantation dance varied
widely across time and region, dance was very often perceived as a significant
threat (Hazzard-Gordon 1990:3–62). In some states, legislation banning dance
and drumming was enacted as dances came to be seen as likely sites for plot-
ting insurrections, or even the occasions for the insurrections themselves
(Hazzard-Gordon 1990:32–34).
Poole’s analysis of the choreography and history of Andean ritual dance fo-
cuses on the complex ways in which convergences between Spanish Catholic
and Andean conceptions of dance as “devotion” allowed the dance to be sus-
tained over centuries, in part because of the uncomprehending cultural “blind-
ness” of the Spanish to “non-religious” political meanings of the dance (Poole
1990). Employing vivid descriptions, diagrams, and photographs of Andean

dance movements and patterns, Poole shows how, despite transformations in

costumes, props and gestures, Andean dance retained characteristic movement
patterns that embedded concepts of social hierarchy and social time fundamen-
tally distinct from those of Europeans. While Andean dance was forced to
work within the space of Catholicism and the church, where it was largely con-
ceptualized as an acceptable “devotional” practice akin to Christian church
dances, for the Andeans the dance retained much of its significance as a means
of gaining individual status and power. Taking the dance into the present,
Poole argues that, like the colonial Spanish, some contemporary “outside” ob-
servers (mis)read the dance within their own interpretive schemes, viewing the
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dance as a symbol of an essentialized Andean identity.

Representations of dance under colonial rule played a critical role in their
transformation. Udall’s analysis of the impact of Euro-American image-
makers (photographers, painters, illustrators) on the practice of the Hopi snake
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dance explores the transformative and intrusive aspects of colonial (and post-
colonial) visual representations on ritual practice (Udall 1992). Representa-
tions of Javanese performances by the Dutch and the legacies of colonialism in
contemporary performance scholarship are explored by Schechner (1990),
who argues that scholars who establish “normative expectations” for “tradi-
tional” performances perpetuate colonial thinking by valorizing one version of
performance as “true” while dismissing others as corrupted.
The most sustained, and historically and theoretically rich research on
dance under colonial rule has been done on bharata natyam and the dances of
the devadasis of India, the object of several recent anthropological and histori-
cal studies (Allen 1997; Kersenboom-Story 1987; Marglin 1985; Meduri
1988, 1996; O’Shea 1997, 1998; Srinivasan 1984, 1985, 1988). The deva-
dasis—female temple dancers of South India—are something of a celebrated
case in the colonial history of India, well known because their practices of
dance and ritual were banned during the Anti-Nautch social reform movement
of the 1890s, which was implemented as part of a series of other reforms de-
signed to “civilize” practices of Indian women. Moreover, bharata natyam—a
dance form that emerged in the 1930s and is ostensibly derived from the
dances of the devadasis—has now migrated to Europe and the United States,
gaining legitimacy as a form of “world dance” (Meduri 1996).
Meduri’s study of the construction of the devadasi in the 19th and 20th cen-
turies shows the ways in which identities of indigenous dancers shifted as they
became implicated in changing discourses of colonialism, nationalism, and
Orientalism (Meduri 1996). While Kersenboom-Story and Srinivasan present
comprehensive, detailed accounts of the devadasi under precolonial and colo-
nial rule, from which Meduri draws, Meduri’s focus is on demonstrating the
ways in which the devadasis became implicated in larger debates about sexual-
ity, womanhood, and the nation as these developed from the 19th century to
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the present. She keeps the focus of her research on the perspectives of the deva-
dasis, insofar as these are made visible in documents such as ritual texts and
protest letters, and in the “visible body” of the dancer. Meduri traces the trans-
figuration of the devadasi from her precolonial practice as a temple ritual per-
former to her naming, in the 19th century, as temple “prostitute” or “dancing
girl” and finally, in the 20th century, to emblem of the nation.
Allen’s (1997) work focuses on the complex processes involved in the re-
contextualization of the devadasi dance during the late colonial period. Allen
discusses the multiple influences on the development of bharata natyam in the
1930s and 1940s, and his work illustrates the complex process by which a rit-
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ual dance form was extracted from its original context and then domesticated,
reformed, and resanctified for middle-class consumption. Illluminating the
many transformations that are masked by the term “revival,” Allen shows how
this celebratory and seemingly innocent term obscures several processes,
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which he succinctly glosses as re-population (one community appropriating a

practice from another), re-construction (altering elements of repertoire and
choreography), re-naming (from nautch and other terms to bharata natyam),
re-situation (from temple and court to the stage), and re-storation (the splicing
together of performances to invent a seemingly ancient practice) (Allen 1997:
The dynamic exchanges that occurred between colony and metropole are
the heart of Erdman’s (1987) study of the Indian oriental dancer Uday Shankar
(Erdman 1987) and her critical analysis of the ways in which nationalism has
affected the construction of the history of Indian dance (Erdman 1996). Erd-
man shows that the important place of “oriental dance”—the dances first de-
veloped in Europe and based on oriental themes—in histories of Indian dance
has long been overlooked for political reasons. After Independence, only two
genres of Indian dances were recognized by nationalists: the “classical” dances
based on regional styles, and the numerous “folk” dances derived from re-
gional and local contexts (Erdman 1996:296). Because histories of Indian
dance were constructed as nationalist histories—thus erasing the influences of
Europeans and Americans, such as Anna Pavlova and Ruth St. Denis (Coor-
lawala 1992), as well as European-influenced Indian dancers like
Shankar—Erdman argues that a “new history of Indian dance” is required, a
critical history that questions long-held tenets about the alleged authenticity
and antiquity of classical dance.
Erdman’s critique of Indian dance histories has many implications for the
development of a critical dance scholarship, and in calling for new, politically
aware histories of dance, Erdman is keenly aware of the difficulties of the task,
and leaves open-ended the forms that such histories might take. In the Indian
case, she argues, they certainly should include the many contemporary devel-
opments in the art, the new choreographies of inventive Indian dancers that are

both “Indian and modern” (Erdman 1996:297). But Erdman even questions
whether the categories of “Indian dance” or “oriental dance” will necessarily
be the most salient ones, emphasizing that regional, caste, or religious identi-
ties may be more relevant for understanding the ways in which dance practices
are understood by the people themselves (Erdman 1996:299). Her critique
raises serious issues about how colonial categories, including the often natu-
ralized classifications of “folk” and “classical” dances, may enact an exclu-
sionary history as well as reify particular politically motivated social identi-
ties. Erdman’s call, in fact, is an opportunity for dance scholars to intervene in
the often-divisive reification of ethnic and national identities, an area in which
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dance scholarship has sometimes been complicit.

Exoticization takes many forms, and the representation of the exotic Other,
especially women, has been an important feature of both dance performances
and visual representations of dance since at least the 18th century. Dance also
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played a critical role in the ethnological exhibitions of the 19th century. Franz
Boas, for example, brought Kwakiutl Indians to perform dances at the Chica-
go’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 (Hinsley 1991), while “native
dancers” featured prominently in Carl Hagenbeck’s profitmaking ethnological
displays in 19th-century Europe.
Dances of the colonized were often appropriated and refigured as adjuncts
to the civilizing mission, variously reinforcing stereotypes of mystical spiritu-
ality and excessive sexuality. In the early 20th century, European and Ameri-
can dancers, including Maud Allan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Anna
Pavlova, appropriated aspects of non-European dance into their performances,
creating the exotic in a myriad of ways. Dance historians of European and
American theatre dance have made significant contributions to rethinking is-
sues of appropriation in their representation of the Other in theatrical dance, lo-
cating these within discourses of imperialism, racism, Orientalism, masculin-
ity, and nationalism, among others (Desmond 1991, Koritz 1994, Strong
Anthropological studies from the early 1970s stressed the ritual reversals,
parody, and satire inherent in festivals and ritual dramas of many societies.
Embedded in many of these studies were brief descriptions of danced paro-
dies of European and nonlocal “Others,” and several of the studies cited
above include such descriptions. But local peoples also adapted, imitated,
and transformed the dances of colonizers, and many contemporary dances
are social texts that embed long and complex histories of intergroup rela-
Szwed & Marks (1988) describe how African Americans in the Americas
and the West Indies took up European court dances of the quadrille, the cotil-
lion, and the contradance, arguing that these dances were both “Africanized”
and adapted for sacred purposes, as well as restructured to become the basis of
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popular culture in the New World (Szwed & Marks 1988:29). Some of these
hybrid dances, such as the cakewalk, became phenomenally popular in North
America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even becoming an interna-
tional dance craze (Malone 1996). Ranger documents how the Beni-ngoma or
“drum band” complex of East Africa, a caricature of the European military pa-
rade, became incorporated into social practices that predated colonialism
(Ranger 1975). The matachines dance, performed widely in Native American
and Hispanic communities throughout the Americas, derives from medieval
European folk dramas and was brought to the New World by the Spanish
(Rodriguez 1996:2; see also Poole 1990:114). Most scholars, according to
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Rodriguez, agree it was brought for the purpose of “Christianizing the Indi-
ans,” and as it is performed today it “symbolically telescopes” centuries of
Iberian-American ethnic relations as interpreted within individual communi-
ties (Rodriguez 1996:2).
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In some colonized societies, imitations of European dances became a

means of upward mobility, much as the speaking of European languages and
the wearing of European dress could become markers of prestige and status.
Ness, for example, shows how a Phillipine dance, the troupe sinulog, devel-
oped in the late 19th century by incorporating features from Hispanic perform-
ance forms such as the war dance/drama, comedia, and the dances of Spanish
Catholic boy choristers (Ness 1992). Ness argues that this process was part of a
wider movement towards Europeanization among Cebu elites in the 19th cen-
tury, in which elements of European, especially Spanish, culture were consid-
ered marks of cosmopolitanism.

Nationalism and Ethnicity

Since at least the 19th century, dance and music have emerged as potent sym-
bols of identity for ethnic groups and nations worldwide. Studies of dance,
ethnicity, and national identity have explored the “objectification” of dance
as national culture (Handler 1988), the politics of the category of “art”
(Hughes-Freeland 1997), the reconstruction of tradition (Kaeppler 1993b),
the reinforcement and contestation of gender, ethnic, and class stereotypes
(Daugherty & Pitkow 1991, Mendoza 1998, Mendoza-Walker 1994, Reed
1998), the role of competitive dance in transforming tradition (Stillman
1996), the multiple resonances of dance and national identity (Taylor 1987),
and the practices of dance as complex social commentaries on interethnic rela-
tions (Rodriguez 1996; Sweet 1980, 1985). European dance scholars or “cho-
reologists” have long focused on documenting the structure of folk dances of
ethnic minorities in a rather decontextualized manner (Giurchescu & Torp
1991), although more recently, several European scholars have turned to the
study of the politics of folk dance as nationalist practice (Quigley 1993). Vail

has examined how Balkan folk dance in a New England community was con-
stituted as a site for middle-class white Americans to play both an idealized
egalitarian American “self” and an exotic Old Country peasant “Other” (Vail
Dance is a powerful tool in shaping nationalist ideology and in the creation
of national subjects, often more so than are political rhetoric or intellectual
debates (Meyer 1995). The role of state institutions in the promotion and refor-
mation of national dances has been documented in a number of studies (Aus-
terlitz 1997; Daniel 1991, 1995; Manning 1993, 1995; Mohd 1993; Ramsey
1997; Reed 1991, 1995; Strauss 1977). The appropriation of the cultural prac-
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tices of the rural peasantry or of the urban lower classes by the state is a perva-
sive strategy in the development of national cultures throughout the world,
whether as indications of the dominance of one ethnic group or as displays of
cultural pluralism.
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In many postcolonial nations, the dancer of the valorized national dance

comes to be idealized as an emblem of an authentic precolonial past. Where
necessary, dancers come to stand in for the nation at local, regional, national,
and international festivals and other occasions. As an embodiment of cultural
heritage, the dancer becomes inscribed in nationalist histories and is refigured
to conform to those histories, yet ambivalence about the dancers and their
practices is often evident because the practices themselves often resist being
fully incorporated into nationalist discourses. Indeed, the very aspects that
make dances appealing and colorful as representations of the past may be pre-
cisely the things that do not easily fit into the self-representation of the nation.
Vestiges of folk religion (Reed 1991), eroticism (Meduri 1996), and social cri-
tique in the performance of dances may sometimes be a source of discord in the
presentation of an idealized national image.
Political ideologies play a critical role in the selection of national dances.
Strauss’s study examines the ideological reasons for the adoption of ballet dur-
ing China’s Cultural Revolution, emphasizing its narrative possibilities,
movement vocabularies that stressed strength and action, and its flexibility in
expressing gender equality through movement (Strauss 1977). Daniel’s stud-
ies of the Cuban rumba represent a particularly striking case in which a na-
tional dance form was selected almost exclusively for ideological reasons re-
lated to its identity with a particular community—the lower-class, dark-
skinned workers of Cuba (Daniel 1991, 1995). Although there were two other
legitimate contenders for the position—the conga, an easier, more participa-
tory form, and the son, the most popular social dance of Cuba—the rumba was
selected by the government because it was viewed as most closely supporting
the ideals of a socialist, egalitarian state, and because it expressed an identifi-
cation with African-derived aspects of Cuban culture (Daniel 1995:16). In
Cuba, the Ministry of Culture was the key agent in the organization of rumba
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(indeed, of all the performing arts), directing amateur dances at neighborhood

cultural houses (casas de cultura) and overseeing three professional folkloric
dance companies.
In the context of state institutions, recontextualization of dance usually en-
tails the domestication of dance, the taming of its potentially disorderly ele-
ments. For example, while in the early postrevolutionary period rumba was as-
sociated with drinking, public revelry, and even fighting, Daniel suggests that
subsequent government support for the dance promoted its shift from this
rather unruly atmosphere to the more contained, controlled sites of the culture
house and the stage (Daniel 1995:61). Indeed, today the dance is highly regu-
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lated, particularly in the Conjunto Nacional troupe, where no innovations or

“mixed” dances are allowed. Artistic freedom is limited by the state, and the
original spontaneous character of rumba has been suppressed.
Regulating purity and authenticity in folkloric dance in a patriarchal and
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protective mode is a common feature of state and elite interventions, often in-
dexing notions of a defensive culture under seige. In Ireland, such an authori-
tarian approach to dance is evident in the regulations of the Gaelic League’s
Irish Dancing Commission that “controls virtually every aspect of Irish
dance from transmission to performance” and forbids the teaching, learning,
and performing of Irish dance without the approval of the Commission
(Meyer 1995:31; see also Hall 1996). Although occurring outside the pa-
rameters of state control, the “ossification” and standardization of the Catalan
sardana is cited by Brandes as an indicator of the legitimate defense of the
Catalans against the threat of Castilian cultural hegemony in Spain (Brandes
The domestication and regulation of a ritual dance form is exemplified in
Ramsey’s study of the relationships between nationalism, Vodou, and tourism
in postoccupation Haiti of the 1930s through the 1950s (Ramsey 1997). Ram-
sey illustrates how the state transformed the powerful ritual practice of vodou
into a symbol of Haitian identity. Vodou in Haiti was a potent symbol in two
distinct senses, both of which, from the point of view of the state, necessitated
its domestication. First, while Vodou had been a site of resistance for over two
centuries in Haiti, in the West it had been an object of sensationalist fascina-
tion for nearly as long (Ramsey 1997:347). This exotic image, however, which
had proved quite successful in drawing tourists also caused considerable con-
cern for the state, whose efforts to control culture through standardization of
dance, were, as Ramsey argues, only partially successful. The process by
which the state attempted to contain culture is a familiar one of sanitization and
desacralization, attempting to separate dance from ritual, and magic and super-
stition from more appropriate aspects of folklore. The attempts at state control
over dance were extraordinary; in 1949, for example, when Jean-Leon Des-
tine, Haiti’s premier dancer, was asked to organize a national folklore troupe,

state ethnologists attended his performances every night to monitor his repre-
sentations of Haitian identity (Ramsey 1997:365).
National dances are derived from the practices of specific communities, but
the dynamics of the appropriation of these practices and the effects they have
on the communities of origin have often been overlooked in the literature on
“invented traditions.” Reed’s ethnographic studies of the Kandyan dance of
Sri Lanka focus on the central role of traditional ritual dancers in the recontex-
tualization of dance from a specialized ritual practice to popular secular form
(Reed 1991, 1995). While acknowledging the critical role of the state in this re-
figuration, which has resulted in an almost entirely secular form of the dance,
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Reed explores the means by which traditional dancers fought to retain some
semblance of the dance’s ritual meaning, even as it became increasingly sim-
plified and standardized within the structures of state bureaucratic practices.
Tracing the development of Kandyan dance since the colonial period, Reed
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also shows how the cultural politics of Tamil and Sinhala rivalries made dance
a focal point for the reification of ethnic identities. In state-sponsored dance
seminars and programs and in dance history texts, for example, oppositional
categories of Sinhala and Tamil are reinforced, despite the quite obvious fam-
ily resemblances between the Kandyan dance and its Tamil counterpart,
bharata natyam.
The emotional power of dance as national symbol is evoked in Shapiro’s
studies of Cambodian court dance in contemporary refugee communities
(Shapiro 1994, 1995). Refugee Cambodian dancers are seen as emblems of
the Cambodian nation as it existed prior to the Khmer Rouge, and the suste-
nance of the elaborate and difficult court dance form, with its more than 4500
gestures and postures, is experienced by Cambodians as a continuity with a
place and a past from which they have been severed. During the brutal repres-
sions of Pol Pot, in which scores of dancers and other artists were killed, danc-
ers had to deny their own identities to survive, and they kept the dance alive by
practicing the gestures and movements in the darkness of night (Shapiro
1995). After the devastations of Cambodian culture by the Khmer Rouge, the
court dance traditions came to stand for all that was lost, “the soul of the
Khmer,” and the burden of healing the body politic is now in the hands of mas-
ter dancers.
With few exceptions (Daniel 1996, Kaeppler 1977), tourist dances, al-
though often discussed in passing in the context of other concerns, have re-
ceived surprisingly little attention from anthropologists, despite their obvious
importance in constituting ethnic and national representations of self and
Other. This may well reflect anthropology’s continued attachment to authen-
ticity, and the taints of impurity and corruption often associated with tourism.
Malefyt’s study of the traditional and commercial forms of the Spanish fla-
menco places tourist performances in a wider context of gendered conceptions
514 REED

of culture and authenticity (Malefyt 1998). Malefyt explores how aficionados

of the dance deploy discourses of purity and impurity, “inside” and “outside,”
to create exaggerated distinctions between the public (masculine), commer-
cialized performances and the closed, private, and intimate (feminine) sphere
of private flamenco clubs. Malefyt’s work thus echoes other studies that show
how protection of the feminine is linked to the defense of purity in cultural tra-

Dance in a Global Context

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The study of dance within contemporary global/transnational contexts is an

arena ripe for anthropological investigation. The influences of migration and
media, especially electronic media (Appadurai 1996), on the production and
reception of dance have only recently received attention from dance and move-
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ment analysts.The ways in which ballet has been “indigenized” and trans-
formed is the subject of Ness’s study of the Igorot, a Philippine transnational
ballet (Ness 1997). Arguing against a simple view of appropriation as “cultural
imperialism,” Ness demonstrates how Igorot is produced as an original and
creative form that selectively references both ethnic and balletic styles. The re-
sult is neither entirely Filipino nor Western, but rather a complex hybrid that
produces contradictory effects. On the one hand, the Igorot is, Ness argues, a
“decolonizing” dance that employs a complex movement vocabulary to create
a form of Philippine self-representation (1997:68). On the other hand, the
dance has the effect of reifying an identification of the Igorot with all Filipi-
nos, thus promoting a conservative agenda that denies the internal ethnic di-
versity and hierarchy of the Philippine nation state (1997:80).
Marta Savigliano’s complex text on the tango is a major work that engages
feminist, postcolonial, and poststructuralist theories to produce a provocative
account of the Argentinian national dance (Savigliano 1995). Savigliano pres-
ents tango as a complicated, contradictory practice that has been produced and
continues to be reproduced through multiple processes of exoticization. With
historical and ethnographic documentation and nuanced movement analyses,
accompanied by a score of illustrations of dancers, publicity flyers, programs,
and dance manuals, Savigliano details the very complex lives the tango has led
in Argentina and in the cultural capitals of London, Paris, and Tokyo. As a
symbol of the passionate Other and of exotic culture in a global capitalist econ-
omy, Savigliano shows the many ways in which the tango has been commodi-
fied for “imperial consumption.” In addition, she demonstrates how the tango
has become the object of a process of “auto-exoticization” by the colonized
Savigliano’s focus on the global context of the production and appropria-
tion of tango is among the book’s most significant contributions. As she tells

us, the imperial, bourgeois classes of Europe constituted the exotic as both
desirable and repulsive, fascinating and scandalous. Unlike other exotic
dances (such as the African American cake-walk and the Brazilian maxixe),
the tango did not have a clear-cut class or race identity, and its erotic character
was displayed as a process of controlled seduction, not instinctive or wild
sexuality. Tango, in short, was highly malleable, an “exotic dance that could
easily be stretched in various directions” (Savigliano 1995:114). In order to
make the exotic palatable as a European practice, however, elements of its raw
and passionate “primitiveness” had to be reshaped to suit cosmopolitan aes-
thetic sensibilities. Dance masters in early 20th century Paris played a key role
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in standardizing the dance, simplifying its improvisational characteristics into

a morally acceptable set of steps, while tango manuals and congresses contrib-
uted to its domestication, “a choreographic transformation suited to French
manners and good taste” (Savigliano 1995:122).
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Of considerable import for anthropologists is Savigliano’s discussion of

“auto-exoticization,” the process by which the colonized come to represent
themselves to themselves through the lenses of the colonizers. Globally, dance
has come to play this role in many postcolonial nations, and Savigliano’s de-
scription of how tango played back home after its incorporation into the exotic
dance repertoire of Europe is relevant for analyzing more generally the role of
the arts in constituting national identities. Although tango originated among
the low working-class sectors of Argentina’s Rio de la Plata region in the
1880s, it was only after it achieved fame in the world’s cultural capitals in the
20th century that it became popular throughout Argentina. Moreover, this rein-
troduction of tango also brought with it new ideas about the social and moral
meanings of dancing—ideas that were culturally dependent on the colonizers
(Savigliano 1995:137). Savigliano’s analysis maintains the tension between
two key effects of exoticization: one that is empowering, granting local recog-
nition to certain social groups and their practices, the other co-opting and bind-
ing, reifying a “tasteful” exotic that served to maintain the (neo)colonized
population’s dependent status. As Savigliano points out, the (neo)colonizers
maintain the upper hand in this process, the threat of withdrawal of recognition
always being in their power.
The role of media and mediating images in the representation and presen-
tation of bodily practices is explored by Zarrilli in his study of the Indian mar-
tial art form kalarippayattu (Zarrilli 1998). Zarrilli, who situates kalarip-
payattu within the contemporary transnational zone of late 20th century “pub-
lic culture” (Appadurai & Breckenridge 1988), examines how “an increas-
ingly diverse group of culture producers and their audiences” are using mass
media to shape martial practices (Zarrilli 1998: 4). Zarrilli’s interest is in “the
dynamic and shifting relationship between body, bodily practice[s], knowl-
edge, power, agency and the practitioner’s ‘self’ or identity, as well as the dis-
516 REED

courses and images of the body and practice created to represent this shifting
relationship” (Zarrilli 1998: 4). He outlines a model for the study of these vari-
ous domains as a complex of four interactive arenas: (a) the “literal” arenas of
practice, such as the training ground, competitions, and the public stage; (b)
the social arenas of the school, lineage, and formal associations; (c) the arena
of “cultural production” that generates live or mediated presentations or repre-
sentations such as films; and (d) the arena of experience and self-
formation—the individual’s experience of embodied practice in the shaping of
a self (Zarrilli 1998:9).
The impact of media images on popular reception and practices of dance
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is explored in Franken’s historical account of the changing image of female

dancers in Egyptian film and television (Franken 1996). Franken argues that
the emergence of a “respectable” female dance form in Egypt and other parts
of the Arab world can largely be attributed to the enormous popularity of the
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cinematic dance performances of a single dancer, Farida Fahmy. While

Fahmy danced in a style that was recognizably Egyptian, her modest costumes
and the de-eroticized context of her dancing projected an image of a “sweet
Egyptian girl who was a true daughter of the country—the antithesis of the im-
age of the belly-dancer who appeared in cabarets and films” (Franken
1996:279). Though Fahmy’s films were made in the 1960s, they are still
shown on television throughout the Middle East, and thus continue to popular-
ize ideas about dancing and respectability far beyond Egypt (Franken 1996:


If we accept as a given that gender is not an essential quality or characteristic

but one that is largely performative, it is evident that dance studies have much
to contribute to research on gender identities. In comparison to other perform-
ance forms such as theatre (Senelick 1992), dance has been in many societies
one of the few sites where women can legitimately perform in public (Thomas
1993:72). While there have been many studies of male and female dances as
evidenced in Hanna’s crosscultural survey (1988), surprisingly few have en-
gaged with the larger debates in the anthropology of gender and sexuality as
they have developed in recent decades.
Dance is an important means by which cultural ideologies of gender dif-
ference are reproduced. Through movement vocabulary, costuming, body im-
age, training, and technique, discourses of dance are often rooted in ideas of
natural gender difference, as Daly describes for the classical ballet (1987/88).
Movement lexicons of males and females often demonstrate the ideals of gen-
dered difference in action. In the Cuban rumba, for example, male dancers use

dance as an arena for exhibiting strength, courage, and bravado, while

women’s dance is generally softer, subtler, more cautious, and graceful (Dan-
iel 1995).
However, dance performances are also sites of gender-crossing, mixing,
and reversal (Grau 1993a, 1995). There are numerous examples of males per-
forming in the costumes and manners of the stereotypical female, some as
parodies of female dancing, others as homoeroticism or provocations to same-
sex erotic encounters (Hanna 1988:57–59). The meaning of role reversals is
highly complex and not at all self-evident. In Africa, where women adopting
“male traits” in collective dances is fairly widespread, Spencer notes the wide-
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ranging meanings that anthropologists have ascribed to these types of dances,

including temporary release from subservience, veiled protest against male
domination, competitiveness between women, and fulfillment of traditional
roles in rites of passage (Spencer 1985:3).
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Women, Sexuality, and Dance

Prohibitions on and regulation of dance practices are often accurate indices of
prevailing sexual moralities linked to the regulation of women’s bodies. In her
historical account of American adversaries of dance from the 17th century to
the present, Wagner argues that opposition to dance, propagated mostly by
white, male Protestant clergy and evangelists, was largely based on a fear of
women, the body and the passions (Wagner 1997). Over the centuries, the
most extensive opposition to dance focused on the alleged or actual sexual im-
morality of dancing or its environment. Dance opponents cast women as either
“pure and pious”—in need of protection from dance—or “fallen and sinful,”
and therefore either victims or perpetuators of the evils of dance. Opposition to
dance was also related to Protestant clerics’ emphasis on strict rationality and
the devaluation of the body. As a “merely” physical activity, dancing was dis-
missed as a waste of time because “neither mind nor spirit was edified” (Wag-
ner 1997: 395). Dance is often an ambivalent and problematic performance
site for women as it demonstrates contradictory and ambivalent attitudes about
female sexuality. Cowan discusses how female sexuality is regarded in north-
ern Greece as both pleasurable and threatening. In dancing, women are encour-
aged to display their beauty, energy, skill, sensuality, and even seductiveness,
while they are simultaneously viewed with suspicion for drawing too much at-
tention to themselves or failing to maintain self-control (Cowan 1990:190).
Because of the inherent ambiguity of bodily actions, there is often no consen-
sus on what distinguishes “a ‘legitimately’ sensual and pleasing gesture from
one that ‘goes too far,’” and thus, for women, the pleasures of dance are often
ambiguous (Cowan 1990:190–91).
Furthermore, dance performances can exhibit and generate gender/class
conflicts regarding the appropriateness of sexually provocative dance move-
518 REED

ments for women. In urban Senegal, women’s dances range from bawdy and
explicitly sexual to highly restrained movements (Heath 1994). While tradi-
tional dancing is considered to be “women’s business,” dancing is also consid-
ered risky for a woman’s reputation, particularly after marriage. Yet their per-
formances are required for public ceremonies, and men’s reputations even de-
pend on them. However, upper-class men often try to control the dancers—in-
sisting on restraint, rather than sexual expressivity. Women, however, often re-
sist, testing the limits of appropriateness by sneaking in risque movements,
thus attempting to defy total control by males (1994:93).
A number of studies illustrate the contradictions and ambiguities of dance
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for women in Islamic societies (al Faruqi 1978). In the “Iranian culture
sphere,” which includes diaspora communities, Shay (1995) argues that the
bazi-ha-ye nameyeshi, a women’s theatrical dance-play performed only for
women, is simultaneously a site of bawdy, erotic expression and also a social
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critique that reinscribes a patriarchal system in which women are defined pri-
marily through their husbands. Deaver’s study of Saudi Arabian belly dancing
(a term used by her informants) echoes this interpretation, as women dance for
each other in a competitive way, displaying their wealth, social status, and sex-
ual desirability (Deaver 1978). Outside the safety of the feminine private
sphere are professional female dancers. Van Nieuwkerk’s historical and eth-
nographic account of professional female belly dancers and singers in Cairo
explores the way in which these performers negotiate their identities within re-
ligious and classed discourses of honor and shame, while also showing how
Orientalist stereotypes of the dancers still persist in contemporary Egypt (van
Nieuwkerk 1995). A key contribution of Buonaventura’s lavishly illustrated
book on baladi (belly dance) is her documentation of Orientalist representa-
tions of dancers in 19th and early 20th century paintings, photographs, and
other media (Buonaventura 1990).
Kapchan’s analysis of the many “bodies” of shikhat, Moroccan female per-
formers who represent the quintessential transgressive female in Moroccan so-
ciety, highlights the complexity of dancers’ identities and both the costs of
marginality and its freedoms (Kapchan 1994). As exemplars of the quality of
matluqat—free, unlimited and unrestricted—shikhat are admired as “lively,
animated, spirited,” embodying features of “exhilaration and flowing move-
ment” (1994: 94). At the same time, the “loose language” of the shikha, both
corporeal and linguistic, is seen as inseparable from her shameful moral char-
acter (1994: 86). Describing the multiple “bodies” of the dancers, Kapchan
evokes the complex meanings of these performers. The “competent body” of
the dancer denotes her as an artist of the physical, exemplifying her sexual
prowess, while the “nonsense body” is an expression of subversion and the
carnivalesque (1994: 93–95). However, these more pleasurable bodies come at
the cost of the “exiled body” (1994: 96). Shikhat may be independent and fun-

loving, but the majority have been rejected by their families and thus uprooted
from place, a state which Kapchan describes as “...the greatest hardship possi-
ble” in Moroccan society (1994: 97). Critiquing “resistance” as a limited con-
struct for understanding the role of the shikhat, Kapchan notes how, despite
their independence, shikhat also internalize “...the dominant value system that
degrades their material and spiritual worth” (1994: 96).

Dance and Feminist Theory: Gaze and Reception

As dance historian Ann Daly has indicated, the common interests of feminist
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scholarship and dance studies would suggest a natural alliance (Daly 1991a),
although as yet, few anthropological studies of dance have drawn explicitly on
feminist theories. Daly’s study of Isadora Duncan and American culture
(1995) provides an important model for interpreting the cultural significance
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of theatrical dance and the importance of audiences. Daly presents a complex

and fluid model for understanding the ways in which dancers mirror, contest,
and transform gender, ethnic, and class identities. One of Daly’s primary
points is her definition of the body as a complex, contradictory, and ever
changing cultural site of “discursive intercourse” which is constructed dialogi-
cally by the dancer and her audiences (1995:17). Daly’s extensive research
into primary sources of Duncan’s audience of mostly upper-class white
women (dance reviews, articles, and memoirs) provides the basis for her
analysis. In foregrounding the importance of reception as co-creation, Daly’s
analysis is highly suggestive for anthropologists who, with few exceptions
(Hanna 1983), have tended to focus primarily on performers or the contexts of
While the “male gaze” (Kaplan 1983, Mulvey 1975) and the gendered re-
ception and reading of dances has been the subject of considerable critical dis-
cussion by dance historians and sociologists (Coorlawala 1996, Daly 1992,
Manning 1997, O’Shea 1997, Thomas 1996), there has been little ethno-
graphic research on dance reception and spectatorship. Miller’s study of same-
sex female sexual dancing in the Trinidadian carnival underscores the critical
importance of exploring gender in the interpretation of dance (Miller 1991),
although one wishes he had further explored this dimension of analysis. In
Trinidad, lower-class women’s dance groups perform in a sexually expressive
way, often parodying men. Indeed, in the Carnival of the late 1980s, same-sex
female dancing had become so conspicuous that the Trinidadian men Miller
interviewed deemed it an expression of “lesbianism gone rife” (1991:333).
This interpretation was considered incomprehensible by Miller’s female con-
sultants, who, according to Miller, did not care with whom they danced. Situat-
ing his interpretation within the wider contexts of cross-gender relations
among the lower classes, Miller argues that this form of sexual dancing,
520 REED

known as “wining,” is not homoerotic, but actually a dance of “autosexuality,”

a sexuality not dependent upon men (1991:333).


In the last ten years, anthropologists and dance scholars have made significant
contributions to cultural analyses of bodies in motion, situating their studies in
relation to broader issues of social and philosophical theory (Farnell 1994,
1995a,b; Foster 1992, 1995b; Lewis 1992, 1995; Novack 1990, 1995). The
works of Bourdieu, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, and Peirce, in particular, have
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provided analysts opportunities for critique and reflection. Anthropologists

Lewis and Farnell, for example, have demonstrated how the legacies of Carte-
sian mind/body dualism permeate the language and categories of theories of
embodiment, providing difficulties for movement analysis (Lewis 1992, 1995;
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Farnell 1994, 1995b). Farnell shows how these categories have resulted in an
“absence of the person as a moving agent” in the Western philosophical tradi-
tion and suggests that the “new realist” philosophy of science espoused by
Harré holds much promise for transcending materialist/immaterialist catego-
ries (Farnell 1994). Lewis proposes that a dialogue between the phenomenol-
ogical approaches of Peirce and the continental phenomenologists, such as
Merleau-Ponty, can contribute greatly to clarifying cross-cultural issues of
embodiment (Lewis 1995: 228).
The body as a conceptual object has been the subject of much debate among
dance scholars, and the interventions of Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull1 have played
a critical role in reconceptualizations of the body in dance studies. Bull was
one of the pioneers of a phenomenological approach, and her untimely death
from breast cancer in 1996 left an enormous gap in the world of dance scholar-
ship. Fortunately, Bull’s considerable body of writings remain a rich source of
insight and analysis on the cultural study of dance; Deirdre Sklar has provided
an elegant summary of her life and work (Sklar 1997).
In an article on “the body’s endeavors as cultural practices,” Novack cri-
tiques some dominant conceptualizations of the body as they have been formu-
lated in anthropology, as well as in the field of dance studies (Novack 1995).
Citing a call for papers for a 1990 anthropological conference on the body, No-
vack notes how the categories listed in the notice “posited the body as an ob-
ject, manipulated by external forces in the service of something: religion (body
as icon), the state (the discipline of the body), gender (the feminine body), and
so on” (1995:179). Novack argues that while these categories articulate some

1 1Most of the works of Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull were published under the name of Cynthia
Novack. In the last months of her life, Cynthia requested that her name be changed.

aspects of social experience, they do not capture the full experiential signifi-
cance of the body as a responsive and creative subject (1995:179–80). In addi-
tion, Novack also cautions against reifying “the body” as the primary analytic
category in dance studies. In some contexts, she argues, it may be that ideas
about sound, movement and social ethics are more culturally relevant for un-
derstanding “bodily endeavors” (1995:183). This perspective resonates with
Turner’s emphasis on the utility of studying “bodiliness” and “productive ac-
tivity” rather than isolated individual and bounded bodies (Turner 1995:150),
and his insight that the social body is produced as an “ensemble of bodily ac-
tivities” (Turner 1995:166).
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“Dance, perhaps more than any other body-centered endeavor, cultivates a

body that initiates as well as responds …” (Foster 1995b:15). Foster’s essay on
the body in dance includes an important critique of Foucault and emphasizes
the agency of the body as a vital counterbalance to the neglect of agentive bod-
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ies in traditional dance studies: “The possibility of a body that is written upon
but that also writes moves critical studies of the body in new directions. It asks
scholars to approach the body’s involvement in any activity with an assump-
tion of potential agency to participate in or resist whatever forms of cultural
production are underway” (Foster 1995b:15). Like Novack and Turner, Foster
does not posit a stable category of the body, but rather considers such questions
as “What bodies are being constructed here?” or “How do these values find
embodiment?” or “How does this body figure in this discourse?” (Foster
The agentive nature of dance has often linked it to notions of resistance
(Martin 1990) and control (Limon 1994), although recent criticisms of the use
of the resistance concept (Abu-Lughod 1990, Ortner 1995) will undoubtedly
lead to refinements in future dance studies. Paradoxically, while some aspects
of the experience of dance may engender kinesthetic sensations of power, con-
trol, transcendence, and divine union, other aspects may locate it within para-
digms of ideological repression or subordination. This stress on the paradox of
agency in dance was early formulated by ethnomusicologist John Blacking,
who argued that “ritual may be enacted in the service of conservative and even
oppressive institutions…but the experience of performing the nonverbal
movements and sounds may ultimately liberate the actors…Performances of
dance and music frequently reflect and reinforce existing ideas and institu-
tions, but they can also stimulate the imagination and help to bring coherence
to the sensuous life…” (Blacking 1985:65). This quality of dance as simulta-
neously productive and reproductive is echoed by Novack, who remarks that
“Dance may reflect and resist cultural values simultaneously,” noting the ex-
ample of the ballerina who “embodies and enacts stereotypes of the feminine
while she interprets a role with commanding skill, agency and a subtlety that
denies stereotype” (Novack 1995:181).
522 REED

Novack’s major ethnographic work on contact improvisation (1990), a

modern communal danced “art-sport” that focuses on the physical sensations
of “touching, leaning, supporting, counterbalancing, and falling with other
people” (Novack 1990:8), located this form within “American culture” (a term
she unfortunately did not adequately problematize). Novack provides a com-
prehensive analysis of several aspects of contact improvisation, following her
notion that in order to understand any dance form, one must take into account
the interplay of its different facets: (a) the “art” (choreographic structures,
movement styles, techniques of dance); (b) the institutions (local, national,
global) in which it is practiced and performed; and (c) those who participate in
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it as performers, producers, spectators and commentators (Novack 1995:181).

In her study, Novack addresses each of these, situating the dance in relation to
particular historical circumstances and showing how the meanings of move-
ment and constructions of the body changed over two decades, from the 1960s
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to the 1980s. Drawing on her own long-term experience in learning contact im-
provisation, Novack provides a rich, sensual interpretation of movement that
is sensitive to the centrality of the body, as well as to the ways in which culture
shapes and is shaped by it.
Novack’s attention to historicizing the body in culture is one of her main
contributions to dance scholarship. In a discussion of theatrical dance forms
in 20th century America, for example, Novack articulates the differences be-
tween the ways in which bodies are conceptualized in ballet (“as an instru-
ment which must be trained to conform to the classical movement vocabu-
lary”), in modern dances of the 1930s and 1940s (“a more expressionist view
of the body…in which internal feelings were realized in external movement”),
and in dances of the postwar period (a model of the body that was “more ab-
stract, or objective, and more phenomenological”) (Novack 1990:31). But
Novack also looks beyond theatrical dance to other cultural influences on
the body, exemplified by rock dancing, experimental theatre, and bodily
based therapies such as Alexander technique, yoga, and meditation. In taking
this broad perspective, Novack situates contact improvisation in relation to
wider currents of change in the 1960s regarding conceptualizations of the
Both the sensual/sensible experience of dance and its cultural meanings are
the focus of a comparative article by Bull that draws on Paul Stoller’s formula-
tion of “sensibility” and “intelligibility” (Bull 1997; Stoller 1989). Exploring
how ballet, contact improvisation, and West African dance stress the senses of
sight, touch, and sound, respectively, Bull argues that the particular character-
istics of each dance form, as well as its modes of transmission and perform-
ance, encourage “priorities of sensation that subtly affect the nature of percep-
tion itself ” (1997:285). Bull thus hypothesizes that dance “finely tunes” cul-
turally variable sensibilities, raising important questions about the transmis-

sion of dance from one cultural setting, or historical period, to another (Bull
Body, space, movement, culture, and history are explored in Sally Ness’s
ethnography of the sinulog, a dance form of the Philippine port city of Cebu
(Ness 1992). Through her interpretations of the varieties of sinulog dancing,
Ness connects a number of issues in the field of dance and movement in an
original way. Ness’s key conceptual innovation is the use of a category she
calls “choreographic phenomena.” By deploying this category in contexts
where the term dance would be too narrow or confining, Ness both draws at-
tention to a wider array of patterned body movements—such as those found in
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ritual practices—and provides linkages between these more public and formal
structures and the more commonplace moves of walking or handholding.
Through the use of analogies, Ness demonstrates how both the visual and the
sensory qualities of movement can be expressed in language. Her description
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of the opening move in the ritual sinulog is typical: “Imagine gentle currents of
energy, flowing freely through and beyond your body, forming warm pools of
movement in the space just around you. Your hands are brought to life in this
softly pulsing current. They wave around in the watery space, leaving invisible
traces of their movement in the air. The current spreads down your legs, which
begin to bear your body’s weight alternately, subtly shifting your body from
side to side through the liquid space in a slight sway...” (Ness 1992:1).
Interpreting movement, however, also requires a sensitivity to cultural
space. As Ness shows, space is not an inert backdrop for movement, but is inte-
gral to it, often providing fundamental orientation and meaning. In an analysis
of the urban environment of Cebu, Ness ranges from a description of the street
plans and built environment to a discussion of the structured movements of
walking, traffic, and ritual dance, drawing out patterns of continuity between
all of these. These patterns she identifies as off-verticality, resiliency, and sur-
face values, all of which manifest themselves in a wide variety of contexts and
constitute the fluidity of life that Ness notes as characteristic of Cebuano cul-
Williams draws attention to the importance of locating movement in space
through an examination of a “bow” in three movement systems—tai chi, a
Latin Mass, and a modern ballet (Williams 1995). In her discussion, drawing
on ideas derived from Hertz and Dumont, Williams attends to the cultural
meanings of movements and directions such as up/down, right/left, front/back,
and inside/outside. Employing Dumont’s idea of a hierarchy of structural op-
positions, she notes, for example, that in European culture movements forward
and backward correlate with temporal ideas of the future and the past. Wil-
liams argues that understanding bodies, spaces, and objects in terms of these
structural oppositions is essential for conceptualizating human movement as
intentional action.
524 REED

Lewis’s study of the Brazilian capoeira—a complex cultural genre that in-
cludes elements of martial art, dance, music, ritual, and theatre—combines de-
tailed analysis of movement with incisive commentaries on its social and cul-
tural significance (Lewis 1992). In his study, Lewis draws on the insights of
Peircean semiotics and context-sensitive sociolinguistic theories (see also Ur-
ciuoli 1995) to illuminate capoeira as a kind of discourse, a “physical dia-
logue” or “conversation” between two partners, a conversation that takes place
through action, not talk. Viewing his primary project as a contribution to a gen-
eral theory of signs in culture, Lewis attends to both the formal and contextual
aspects of the capoeira. The voices of capoeira masters, as well as that of the
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anthropologist, are present throughout the text.

One of the key contributions of Lewis’s study to dance and movement
analysis is his use of a Peircean semiotic perspective that emphasizes the poly-
semy of sign systems, the multiplicity of interpretations, and the negotiated
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and unstable nature of cultural production. While language has long been the
privileged site of analysis in semiotic approaches influenced by Saussure,
Lewis shows how Peirce’s attention to the iconic and indexical features of
signs may prove more illuminating for analyses of extralinguistic sign systems
such as dance and music (see also Feld & Fox 1994). While stressing the con-
ditioned and highly contextualized nature of such systems, the Peircean per-
spective provides a broad view that allows the analyst to make links with other
sign complexes within a society. Like Ness, Lewis demonstrates that the rela-
tionships between everyday movements and movements in performance are
continuous, though not identical, relating to what Lewis calls a “cultural style”
linking everyday life with art (1992:132). Cultural styles, in Lewis’s view “are
composed of signs which are semiotically related but functionally and prag-
matically diverse: able to function in many ways, mean many things, but all in
the same ‘way’” (1992:132). As Lewis indicates, cultural style is often em-
bedded in physical habits and rarely articulated—thus dependent on the keen
eye and body of the participant/observer.
Attention to the multiple and contested interpretations of movement in his-
tory, and the dilemmas of the anthropologist in sorting out these contested his-
tories, is yet another important aspect of Lewis’s project. Throughout his
analysis, Lewis relates the movements in capoeira to practitioners’ accounts of
their links to the culture of Brazilian slavery, and by extension, to Africa.
While acknowledging the political meanings that such links may have in con-
temporary culture, Lewis does not refrain from casting doubt on some promi-
nent oral traditions explaining the origins of capoeira and he attempts to sort
out and examine its multiple influences—Amerindian, African, and European.
In his discussions of the “multiple semiotic channels” of capoeira—move-
ment, music, and speech—Lewis frequently comments on the African and
European influences that are in evidence, or are meaningful to capoeira mas-

ters. He also shows capoeira’s links to other Afro-Brazilian movement sys-

tems, such as the samba, and to African music and ritual aesthetics, making
again a case for a distinctive cultural style (see also Lewis 1995:226).
The thread that binds this complex semiotic system together and links it to
other facets of Afro-Brazilian culture is the theme of liberation, escape, and
freedom: freedom from slavery, from class domination, from poverty, and
even from the constraints of the body (Lewis 1992:2). Deception is a key
means of achieving liberation, a trait that Lewis suggests evolved under slav-
ery as a “weapon of the weak” and has now become a central value in contem-
porary society. In capoeira, many moves are made to deceive—a blessing that
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1998.27:503-532. Downloaded from

results in a kick (Lewis 1992:32), or the set of movements Lewis classes as

“pretend to run away,” in which a player initially feigns fear, only to turn and
attack (1992:130). These tactics of deception, along with a host of other pre-
tend movements (pretend to lose sight of the opponent, pretend to be injured,
by DUKE UNIVERSITY on 03/04/09. For personal use only.

pretend to be angry, and so on), Lewis argues, are viewed as a necessary and
valued aspect of life, both in and out of the capoeira ring. In capoeira, however,
unlike in everyday life, deceptive tactics are revealed, and thus, truths about
society are unmasked (1995:194).
Barbara Browning’s exploration of the Brazilian samba employs vivid lan-
guage to inscribe the “bodily writing” of dance, drawing the reader into the
worlds of samba, candomblé, and capoeira of Bahia and New York City
(Browning 1995). In Brazil, Browning writes, “I began to think with my body”
(1995:xxii), and it was through her experience of Brazilian dancing that
Browning conceived “entirely different ways of thinking about language, writ-
ing, representation, narrative, even irony” (1995:xxi). Browning conceives of
her project as neither purely historical nor purely semiotic analysis, but an ac-
count that would “allow for a synthesis of time and signs, which would be the
only way to account for the complex speaking of the body in Brazil” (Brown-
ing 1995:9). The circle or roda of samba, candomblé, and capoeira stands as a
metaphor through Browning’s analysis; there is no linear progression, but
rather expansion and always return. While Browning discusses the “secular”
samba, the “religious” candomblé, and the “martial dance” of capoeira in sepa-
rate chapters, she makes clear that the boundaries between them are not at all
clear, and that references to one may be encoded in another.
The centrality of dance in trance and healing has long been acknowledged
by anthropologists (Bourguignon 1968), and a number of insightful studies
have stressed body-centered or phenomenological approaches (Deren 1970;
Drewal 1989, 1992; Devisch 1993; Friedson 1996; Kapferer 1983; Katz 1982).
In her discussion of the dances of the syncretic Afro-Brazilian Catholic-
Yoruba religion of candomblé, Browning explores a critical issue of represen-
tation in describing what anthropologists have generally classified as “posses-
sion.” What does it mean to be “mounted” by the gods, and how can one de-
526 REED

scribe its “divine choreography”? Like other writers who describe African
trance dance as a manifestation of divine powers, Browning shifts from read-
ing the body as the central object of analysis, to the orixás—the principles of
nature—that stand outside of, and before, human creative potential (1995:42).
In making this shift, Browning alters her analytic focus from the individual
body to more culturally salient notions. But how is divinity represented in
Browning answers this question by undertaking a semiotic analysis of the
ways in which “orixá choreography” is danced. The invocative dances of the
orixás, subdued and subtle dances that are performed prior to their descent, are
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not evocations or imitations of the orixás, but a “prayer of significance” and of-
fering to them (Browning 1995:70). For male gods, the dances are performed
in reference to the metonymic, physical objects that are associated with them;
for goddesses, the dances tend to be embodied in relation to their principles.
by DUKE UNIVERSITY on 03/04/09. For personal use only.

The lightning god Xangô, for example, is invoked in a manner in which the
body of the dancer comes to resemble his implement, the thunder axe, while in
dancing Yemanjá, the goddess of salt waters, the dancer pulls her out-
stretched arms inward as if drawing the waters in at low tide (Browning
1995:65). Browning’s conclusion is that representations of divinity in can-
domblé can be made contiguously or metonymically, but not mimetically, and
grasping this essential principle enables one to interpret the choreography of
Among the many stereotypes that Browning counters in her book is the ca-
thartic theory of dance and ritual (see Spencer 1985:3–8) that argues that the
dances of the marginal and lower classes are a means to cope with the oppres-
sion of their lives by using dance as a temporary “escape” from everyday suf-
fering. Browning provides an alternative reading to this, asserting that dance is
not a retreat but rather a means of remembering, a mode of “cultural record
keeping” and a form of “cultural inscription” (Browning 1995:xxii), a “lan-
guage in response to cultural repression” (1995:174). As she concludes in her
final chapter, “the insistence of Brazilians to keep dancing is not a means of
forgetting but rather a perseverence, an unrelenting attempt to intellectualize,
theorize, understand a history and a present of social injustice difficult to be-
lieve, let alone explain” (Browning 1995:167).
As Ness, Lewis, and Browning all demonstrate, patterning and principles of
continuity exist across domains of movement, space, material objects, music,
and verbal play. Though still a minor theme in dance scholarship, there is a
small but important body of work that explores the connections between dance
and other modes of expressive culture. Kaeppler’s studies of Tongan and Ha-
waiian dance, music, and poetry, for example, illustrate how key aesthetic
principles are manifested in verbal, visual, and musical forms (Kaeppler
1993a, 1995, 1996). Feld’s analysis of the Kaluli ceremonial dance of gisalo

explores how the Kaluli concept for style and aesthetics, “lift-up-over-
sounding,” reverberates in sound, text, face painting, costume, and dance
movements (Feld 1988, 1990a). Kersenboom highlights how dance is integral
to an understanding of the Tamil language (muttamil, literally “three Tamil”)
which, by definition, includes dance, music, and text (Kersenboom 1995).
Other studies examine aesthetic and stylistic relationships between dance and
music (Chernoff 1983, Erlmann 1996, Thompson 1966), dress (Kealiinoho-
moku 1979), mime (Royce 1984), and sculpture, painting, mythology, and
literature (Gaston 1982, Thompson 1974, Vatsyayan 1968).
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 1998.27:503-532. Downloaded from

Since the mid-1980s, there has been an explosion of dance studies as scholars
from a variety of disciplines have turned their attention to dance. Anthropolo-
by DUKE UNIVERSITY on 03/04/09. For personal use only.

gists have played a critical role in this new dance scholarship, contributing
comparative analyses, critiquing ethnocentric categories, and situating studies
of dance and movement within broader frameworks of embodiment and the
politics of culture. Countering theories of the body which view it primarily as a
site of inscription, dance scholars have demonstrated how performers invent
and reinvent identities through movement. Dance scholars have also refuted
notions of the body as an isolated entity by showing how a multiplicity of bod-
ies is produced through dance.
As scholars of dance and movement explore new ways of thinking through
and with the body, there is no doubt that they will continue to challenge con-
ventions, undermining entrenched dualisms (e.g. mind/body, thinking/feel-
ing), critiquing evolutionary, colonial, and nationalist typologies (e.g. classi-
cal, folk, ethnic), exposing the limits of conceptual categories (e.g. dance, art),
and revealing dimensions of dance experience (e.g. the sensual, the divine)
that have often been neglected in scholarly inquiry.
I would like to express my thanks to those friends and colleagues who pro-
vided much encouragement and critical commentary on this review: E Valen-
tine Daniel, Mary Des Chene, Jeanne Marecek, and Elizabeth Tolbert. I am
grateful to J Lowell Lewis, Bill Smith, and Faye Harrison for useful sugges-
tions in the final stages. Adrienne Kaeppler, Janet O’Shea and the late Cynthia
Jean Cohen Bull generously provided numerous references.

Visit the Annual Reviews home page at
528 REED

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